According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod (8th century), the gods made several races of mortal men, one after the other as each met its demise. The first and the best was a golden race, the second was made of silver, the third bronze, and the fourth and worst was made of iron.
Hesiod’s notion of what we might call a “Golden Age,” an “Iron Age,” and so on, is reminiscent of the Hindu idea of the Yugas (Ages), descending from the Satya Yuga (Age of Truth) to the Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness), the latter of which, claimed French metaphysician Rene Guenon, is the one we are living in.
During the first age, both Hesiod and Hinduism tell us, humanity lived in harmony with Nature and with the gods. There was peace, prosperity, harmonious society, close friendship, and strong family bonds. In the Iron Age or the Kali Yuga, however, the family will have been all but destroyed, brother will fight brother, people will form relationships on the basis of sexual attraction alone, and spirituality will be subordinated to materialism. Sound familiar?
Historically speaking, the modern era begins with the so-called “Enlightenment,” a term that — as you probably know — refers not to Buddhism, but to scientific rationalism. The belief was that man, being a rational creature, could, by rational thinking, come to understand what was best for society, the mechanics of nature, and even how everything came into existence.
One thing we know about pre-modern consciousness is that, in general, societies did not believe that rational thinking was enough. It could be applied in relation to theology (hence the Arabic term ‘aql, meaning, in essence, the rational part of the soul), etc. There was philosophy. And even such works as the medieval Iceland Poetic Edda includes much sensible advice for living (though perhaps that’s not “rationalism” per se). But, fundamentally, ancient man believed in the gods, in goddesses, in omens, in cosmic forces such as fate (Old English Wyrd), and in the Divine.
Life followed the patterns, not only of the seasons, but of natural law. Family bonds had to remain strong (and rulers, as we know, would often marry their children off to form alliances with other kingdoms); the body had to be strong, both for hard physical work such as farming or metallurgy, and for training for battle and repelling invaders; and tribes had to be united in their view of morality and in their worship of the gods, etc.
Time was not a straight line, with “progress” ushering in an allegedly brighter future, in which man would be able to buy more things with greater ease and at a cheaper price. Time was cyclical, and at its end was — as the Poetic Edda calls it — the “Wolf Age,” a time of societal and cosmic collapse, in which men, gods, and giants would fight each other.
In the ancient world, then, personal expression was not a major concern. What men expressed, and wanted to express, was, in a sense, what the gods or fate had given them, and that had to be expressed to be fully alive. They wanted to make the body healthy and strong, and so, too, the mind, their sacrifices to the gods, their family, friendship, and so on.
We, of the modern world, have been taught that, in believing in gods, goddesses, spirits, and so on, ancient societies foolishly believed in the unreal, in “superstitions,” and in “fairy stories,” etc. But, in truth, it is in modernity that we see an increasing retreat from the real:
In regards to spirituality, deities are viewed not as living things in themselves but as “aspects” of our personality or of a collective “unconscious.” (But, then, are we, too, even real?) Gender, we are told, has no basis in the physical body, and is nothing more than a “social construct.” It — or at least “gender identity” — is merely a theoretical or perhaps a legal proposition. We need not even improve our own bodies, since physical attractiveness might be akin to fascism, whereas an unhealthy body is liberating.
Only a society that had withdrawn from the real, and from the intensity of life, could come up with such ideas.
However, don’t misunderstand me. Gender ambiguity has always existed, as has homosexuality. We know that shamans of primitive tribes often had a stong “transvestite” or transexual element to them. But, this was what gave them power: gender was real, male and female was real, and, by being both (and incorporating the power of both into them), the shaman had transcended man and had become like the gods.
Nor do I think anyone should be “shamed” for their looks. Our obligation is to elevate ourselves, and to encourage others to uplift themselves, to get over the fear of trying and possibly failing, and to be something better than we are now.
But the fact remains that, what, in pre-modernity, existed out there in the world, in modernity exists only subjectively as an idea. We can think of the Tarot. What is it but pictures of objects, scenes, and people? Yet, the Tarot reader sees everything in the picture — even the colors — as meaningful and as telling him or her something profound. So, too, in antiquity did nature and society exhibit total meaning. Yet, today, we walk through the city and ignore almost everything. We’ve all seen it: a crazy person gets on a subway car, or someone passes out, and those around them don’t even notice. Nothing seems related to us.
This is the great challenge for us, in this era: How can we find meaning in a world that is increasingly suspicious of, and even hostile to, meaning? How, in other words, can we shine the light of the Golden Age into the Iron Age?
We live in this era, of course, with its technology and freedom of self-exploration and freedom of thought and expression in art, clothing, food, lifestyle, and so on, and there is no point in acting as if it is four, five, or six decades ago. We can’t turn the clocks back. (Indeed, our freedom and the technology of modernity enables us to connect with others and to spread our ideas, art, and so on — and we can be thankful for that.)
Yet, we must begin to understand why ancient and tribal societies had strong family bonds. Why older men initiated younger men into the male Mysteries (notably, men who were fatherless as children are far more likely to abuse drugs, be imprisoned, or commit suicide, for example), and why older women initiated younger women into the female Mysteries. Why pre-modern societies cultivated strong bonds of comradeship and community. And why men and women were seen as complementary and as essential to each other, rather than good only for casual sex, or as each other’s “oppressor.” Lastly, we need to see why it was seen as ideal in most societies to cultivate the soft and hard arts, and to develop the mind, body, and spirit.
Many of the problems of modernity can be combated by developing ourselves along similar lines. Rather than worrying if we have the right to eat unhealthily and live an unhealthy lifestyle, we can act out of our obligation to our body, mind, and spiritual wellbeing, for example. Likewise, even where family bonds are weak or no longer exist, modernity’s atomization can be combated by creating, or by joining and contributing to, groups or communities with strong bonds, such as martial arts or traditional Yoga groups, practicing spiritual groups, or responsible fraternities or sororities, etc.
Our question is not what am I owed? But what do I owe this body, my family, my friends, my talent, my interests, etc.?
We must resist being pulled into theories, half-truths, propaganda, excuses bloated into ideologies, and unreality. Whole pantheons of gods and goddesses may exist within us, but we must seek them in the physical world, in our physical bodies, our friends, family, in love, in those that inspire us, in strange places, not so that we feel the urge to bow down to them, but so that we feel elevated and experience again a world and a life so intense and so real that it seems to be bursting with Mystery.